Horatio Alger stories don’t get much more archetypal than fitness pioneer Joe Weider’s: scrawny Jewish child of the Depression learns to defend himself from schoolyard prejudice by strengthening himself, then turns the world on to the healthy effects of weight-training and bodybuilding, and ultimately creates a fitness empire.
Movie material, right? Kid who got sand kicked in his face, like in that old cartoon, becomes the ripped dude with the hot girlfriend. And Weider actually did marry a blonde ’50s pin-up queen, Betty Brosmer. On top of that, in the late 1960s, he nurtured an Austrian nobody named Arnold Schwarzenegger to worldwide glory on the Mr. Olympia/Mr. Universe circuit. How could this story not work as a flex-and-pecs, flab-to-slab biopic of singular American (by way of Canada, his birth country) success?
I don’t know, but “Bigger,” director and co-writer George Gallo’s movie of Weider’s trajectory, is a missed opportunity, the kind of yo-yo-ing highlights version of a life that seems less examined than expedited. You could know zilch about Weider going into “Bigger” and just sense from scene to scene that you were getting the liberally juiced version from the four-credited-writers screenplay, rather than the organically sculpted one.
The movie’s wayback device is the 2008 funeral of Joe Weider’s brother and business partner Ben, at which the elderly Joe (Robert Forster) agrees to tell his story to a journalist (DJ Qualls). From there it’s off to Montreal’s Jewish ghetto in the 1930s, where young Joe and Ben — who live under a severe, overworked mother (Nadine Lewington) — get into alley scraps over anti-Semitic slurs. Sneaking into the circus, a leopard-skinned anvil-lifter sparks Joe’s interest, after which he starts lifting makeshift weights. In 1937, a newly bulked-up Joe (Tyler Hoechlin from adolescence on) wins his first strongman competition, and a diehard muscle man and health fanatic is born.
In his spare time, Joe draws idealized male figures and plots “the path to the perfect physique,” which draws quizzical stares from some but encouragement from brother Ben (Aneurin Barnard, “Dunkirk”). When Joe’s first independently created magazine catches on, pushing against the era’s misperception that weight-training was dangerous for everyday people and professional athletes, interest from American publishers grows.
Less impressed is rival muscle-mag boss and openly gleeful bigot Bill Hauk, a fictional character, possibly a composite, played by Kevin Durand with the kind of outlandishly snarling, racist malevolence typically saved for plantation melodramas. (Durand may have thought the movie’s title was also a director’s note.) It’s unclear why the movie needed a villain, but Hauk keeps popping up as Joe’s empire blooms, until he gets a final physical comeuppance straight out of a cartoon.
Then again, Hoechlin’s performance as proudly Jewish, all-business and no-fun Joe is also more caricature than compelling entrepreneur, seemingly built around a distracting, Jackie Mason-adjacent, fourth-gear Yiddish accent. Only when Julianne Hough shows up as cover girl Brosmer, whose knockout looks and committed gym regimen made her doubly attractive to Joe, does “Bigger” find an effortlessly appealing side to the Joe Weider story: the emotionally intelligent spouse with savvy business smarts and a sparkling personality. (She fares better than the blink-and-gone representation of Joe’s first wife, played by Victoria Justice, who goes from charmed-and-engaged to nagging-and-out-the-door with ruthless biopic efficiency.)
Once the Weider brothers are fully ensconced as titans of bodybuilding in Los Angeles — selling magazines, supplements, and weights to an ever-more fitness-conscious public — the movie veers haphazardly into the Arnold portion, when Joe used the Austrian protégé’s nascent star power to expand his empire. Some of Australian newcomer Calum Von Hoger’s portrayal of Schwarzenegger’s charismatic shrewdness is enjoyable. But even this segment has a slapdash feel, covering over ten years — from the meet-cute line “I’ve been drawing you my whole life” to Joe’s acting advice to the nervous budding star, “Just be yourself, Arnold” — in what seems like a blip. Gallo, whose direction has an undeniable paciness but a numbing competency, seems eager to check things off a list and move on.
What happens is, when we’re back at the funeral for Ben, we realize the brother was barely a character, and Joe’s achievements have been acknowledged but hardly made meaningful or emotional. Joe Weider saw the future — our untapped obsession with transformation turned toward our own physical beings — and made it his lifelong mission to evangelize a cult of the body. “Bigger” wants to be that inspiring saga, but instead it’s an endurance workout of a movie.